Meermin is a beautiful conundrum of a shoemaker.
The Mallorca-based company crafts shoes for under $200 that far outstrip that price bracket, and certainly what anyone else seems able to pull off. While other companies cover up the fact that they make shoes in China or other countries, Meermin Mallorca is very up front about manufacturing there—and will tell you, convincingly, why that actually makes the shoes better. They produce hand-welted shoes for $300, which is almost unfathomable. They make shell cordovan shoes and boots for under $450 (sometimes as cheap as $350), which is basically unheard of in 2019.
Pepe Albaladejo runs Meermin with his father Jose, who founded the company in 2001 by selling through the legendary shoe mecca that is Tokyo’s Isetan department store. As we talked in Meermin’s converted loft of a Soho storefront—which was initially conceived as a showroom before they realized that too many people wanted to walk out with shoes—Pepe was genial, lively, and very open about Meermin’s past and present business, especially from the manufacturing side.
We covered his family’s deep shoemaking history, design, materials and construction including in that hand-welted Linea Maestro line, how Meermin approaches training its workers, and—of course—how they make it all happen at such an appealingly affordable price.
Stitchdown: How do you do this? How do you make shoes at this level quality, for around $200? Nobody else seems to be able to do it. How do you?
Pepe: The most important thing is to be honest with the customer. Number two, we don’t wholesale to anyone. If we did that, there’s no way we could have these prices. Materials-wise, we cut no corners at all. They’re Goodyear welted, but the insoles, the heels, the leathers, the welts, the linings, all the materials that go into the shoe. Your question is quite obvious: what are you doing to have this price that others are not doing? Our margins are so low, but we think it’s the way to go, to offer this product to our customers, and keep our value.
I mean, we haven’t raised the prices in five years. That’s something you don’t find out there. Not just in shoes, but in everything, five years without raising the price one dollar. Leather prices are rising, labor is rising, shipping is rising. But we didn’t do it, because we can support it for now. But our margins are very low.
Stitchdown: So ultimately you’re selling enough shoes to be able to do that, essentially?
Pepe: Yes. We come from Mallorca, and we have a factory in Mallorca, but we also have part of our production in China. We send all our materials from Europe and Japan, and also produce the shoes there. In our industry, people don’t like us, because our prices are so adjusted that they cannot compete with us. The easy answer is: they are made in China. But that’s not the case. Today, I can make a shoe cheaper in Spain than I can in China. But I’ve been there in China training people for almost 20 years, and I have my factory there. And I’m not just moving to a third party factory who does shoes for everyone else. This factory is just making shoes for us.
Stitchdown: So the Mallorca factory wouldn’t even have enough capabilities to do everything?
Pepe: The problems in Mallorca are capacity, and the workers. It’s a situation in Mallorca that’s really not sustainable. There were hundreds of factories 50 years ago, 60 years ago. But not anymore. Why is that? People don’t want to work in a factory. We live in an area that is very touristy, so people work in a hotel. They make much more money in less time, and they’re not in a factory behind a machine. And that’s why shoe factories disappeared in Mallorca. They eventually moved to some parts of Spain, but those parts of Spain are suffering a lot, and many factories are shutting down.
Nowawdays for me, it’s not where it’s made. It’s how it’s made. How you do it, what’s the philosophy of the company. We did not go to Shanghai to make shoes solely because of the price. 20 years ago, the price was different. But not anymore. Trust me. Not anymore. But we can do things in China that we cannot do in Spain.
Stitchdown: Like what?
Pepe: Like hand-welting. It’s impossible in Spain.
Pepe: Because nobody knows how do it. No one did it before.
Stitchdown: And nobody’s willing to learn from you? They want to work in a hotel?
Pepe: Sure, but even someone working in a shoe factory isn’t willing to learn that. If you tell them they’re going to be welting one or two pairs of shoes a day, they’ll tell you you’re crazy. But it’s something that adds value to our brand, for people who appreciate the quality. And this is another thing that’s interesting—most people see our shoes, hey $195, that’s a great price for a Goodyear welted product. But no one looks at the Linea Maestro shoes, which are $300.
Stitchdown: I think that’s far crazier, that you’re selling those for $300.
Pepe: Of course. We don’t do a lot of them, but it’s something you can’t find anywhere else. A $195 Goodyear welted shoe, you can probably find something. Probably not as refined, not the same aesthetics, but you can find something. But a hand-welted shoe for $300, with the materials that we’re using, JR soles, French calf from D’Annonay, lining from DuPuy, it’s something that’s impossible.
Stitchdown: Right, you’re otherwise looking at something like Vass, for $800, $900.
Pepe: Sure, but this is a very good price point for a hand-welted shoe. Vass is very well made, and it’s a very good price point. But for me, hand welted, or even Norvegese, it’s something our competitors cannot make. They have to train people. And then, making shoes entirely by hand in a factory, you can’t just make one pair. You have to make batches. And to keep quality stable, on the welting and everything else, it’s not that simple.
Stitchdown: Tell me about the training and education process for workers in China. Are you taking someone who’s never made shoes ever in their life and training them for 10 years from the ground up? Or how does that work? Who are the people?
Pepe: It depends on the position, but for example you can find people who have been hand-welting for years there. But even they still they need training. Generally though, the factory was making shoes. But ladies’ shoes. High heel shoes. Nothing comparable to a Goodyear welted shoe. We first started working in China because we had contracts with the French army and the British army for Goodyear welted officer shoes, and parade shoes. That was a huge amount of shoes, just a few styles.
Stitchdown: How many shoes?
Pepe: A contract for those was probably 100,000 shoes in a period of three years. When my father got this contract, he thought, it is impossible to do this in Spain. So he went to China, found a factory, and they said let’s do it. Let’s change everything, let’s train people, and try to do this. When they first started, they were doing everything by hand. Lasting, welting. Apart from sole stitching, everything was done by hand.
Stitchdown: And this was just the military shoes? And what year was it?
Pepe: Yes, we were just making military shoes in China. This was almost 20 years ago. The shoes we were making for the Japanese market were made in Mallorca, but those numbers were very small. Just for Isetan Shinjuku, and then for Hankyu, in Osaka. I don’t know if you’ve been there, but you’ve gotta go there. You’ve gotta go.
Stitchdown: I’ve been! My wife and I did our honeymoon in Tokyo and Kyoto.
Pepe: It’s an amazing place. They just wanted Linea Maestro, and they were selling for $600 or $700. Same shoes. And they were selling very well. So that gives you an idea of the market.
Stitchdown: I want to get back to Japan for sure, but before we do that, I’d love to talk a bit more about the China production. What are some misconceptions that people maybe have about Chinese manufacturing? Obviously it doesn’t always have the best name.
Pepe: What happened with China is, not just for shoes but in general, many American and European companies would go to China, and find a factory that was already making shirts, for example, and put in an order. But then the Chinese were making whatever they wanted. Quality wasn’t there, because no one was watching. And of course they were just trying to cut corners everywhere, to make a profit. But that is not our way of doing things. And what you’ll see now is that factories in China are shutting down, because they lost all their clients because of this.
When people say quality products can’t be made in China, that’s completely not true. You see this [holds up his iPhone].
Stitchdown: I have some questions about my iPhone’s quality!
Pepe: Ha, sure. Yes. But the point is, if they can do this, they can do anything. They have no limitation on what they can do. But it all depends on how you work there. If you go there just for the price, you’re done. You’re not gonna get anything that’s good. Because they’re used to outsiders going just for the pricing, and not going to the factory anytime again. You cannot do that in China, but you cannot do that anywhere.
Stitchdown: Do you spend a lot of time there?
Pepe: Until a couple years ago, I was going to China one week a month, but now it’s my father going there. He’s practically living there, he’s there three weeks out of four. But that’s the only way! You need to be there to tell people how to do it, and even if they know how to do it, just to check. We make a lot of changes in the chain all the time, to improve. But if you’re not there, how are you going to do it? You need to be on the factory floor. This is not a shirt. Making shoes is quite different from making a shirt, or a phone that can be assembled by a machine.
Making shoes, it’s not always equal all the time. Leather is a natural material, and sometimes it stretches more than others. They have a last. You cannot stitch pieces together, and that’s it. You need to put your common sense into what you’re doing. You can’t do something that’s quality in China, or anywhere else, if you’re not there.
Stitchdown: So what happens in China, and what happens back in Mallorca? Are the shoes being 100% assembled in China? Or how’s that all work?
Pepe: In China we’re now doing 90% of the production. But we’re willing to move it to 100%. The problem, again, is we have no way of finding people. And it’s truly a shame. But in these kinds of industries, which are so small, it’s very complicated. So we’re moving it to China, we have no problem doing it, and I think everything’s going to be way easier for us, and the customers are going to be happier. Making the shoe partially in China and then sending it to Mallorca to finish it, that’s not the best way for a shoe to be made.
Stitchdown: So that’s how it works? 90% is in China, and then it’s finished in Spain? And when you say finished, that means, for Meermin…
Pepe: Some of the shoes, the soles are stitched there, some not. It’s not the same for everything. But in any case, for the product itself, it’s not the best way. Moving everything to China, it’s going to be way better for the product. And for the customers. Because they’re going to be seeing the shoes earlier.
Stitchdown: So something that interests me, is that you’re finding it very difficult to manufacture in Spain…
Pepe: Specifically in Mallorca.
Stitchdown: Ok so that changes the question a bit. But there are these upstart companies that maybe design their shoes in New York, or LA, but then they’re manufactured in Spain, as this premium thing. But they’re finding labor in Spain, just not in Mallorca?
Pepe: Those factories, and some of them are very good—they are. But to me, there’s no point of making shoes in those places. If you go into one of those factories, and there’s a whole bunch of other brands making their shoes there. So what’s going to be different about mine? And how can I be sure they’re going to be respecting my lasts, and my styles, among the other customers? They won’t. Probably we would be making more money. But it’s not fair to the customers. It’s way too risky.
Stitchdown: Can you help me understand your family history, and what the connection is to the Carmina factory?
Pepe: I’ll make it really simple. There was a huge company back in the 80s called Yanko, and all my family was there. Grandfathers, uncles, my father. At some point in the late 90s, probably 2000, Yanko went bankrupt. It was too oversized, they were selling shoes everywhere. Nordstrom was one of their biggest clients. Japan as well. And huge in Spain. Huge.
Stitchdown: How’d they go bankrupt? Sounds like they were doing pretty good!
Pepe: They were doing good for many years, but in the late 90s, when all these casual styles came in, sneakers—not sneakers like we know them today, but comfort shoes. The company was oversized. They had thousands of workers in Mallorca, which is completely insane. So it went bankrupt, and part of my family founded Carmina, and my father founded Meermin. They had different ideas about the business and that’s it. Now you can see Yanko again, because someone else bought the brand, but it’s nothing related to our family.
Stitchdown: What’s it like growing up in a shoemaking family?
Pepe: I wouldn’t say boring, but…something close. Haha. No, I have very good memories, being at the factory all summer. You get used to it. I didn’t want to work in the business. I studied architecture. But at that point my father told me, I want to change the business. This is not working. We were selling in Japan, just wholesaling. These people are selling our shoes, they’re doing whatever they want with our shoes. Let’s do something for us. And we opened the store in Madrid.
Stitchdown: So before we get to that, let’s actually back up for a minute, to Japan now.
Pepe: My father was in charge of the Japanese market for Yanko, for many years, and he had very good relationships with all the people in Japan. These people relied on him. He told them, I’m going to be doing something else, would you want my shoes? They told him hey, of course. No one had heard of Meermin ever, and they were in Isetan, next to Crockett & Jones, and John Lobb. And they started selling a lot. The concept was the same: we have to do something that’s very well made, at the best price we can do. At Isetan it wasn’t that cheap, but they were very well priced for the market, and they were selling very well. At one point, Meermin was the top seller in revenue for Isetan.
Stitchdown: Were they the same shoes?
Pepe: Pretty much. Different shapes. Japanese people have smaller feet, and they wanted to use longer shapes, very pointy shapes, and so that’s what we made. Japanese people really appreciate the quality over the brands, no matter what. When I was 16, I spent a couple months there, and I really understand how the Japanese buyer thinks. They want quality. They have respect for the product, respect for the materials, for the people who made it. Even if it was made in China! Japan has a huge history with China. They cannot stand one another. And they still want it, because of the quality, and the price point, and they understand that this is something that’s valuable.
Stitchdown: What was the next step after that, selling in Japan?
Pepe: After many years, sales went down in Japan, because they went into a huge recession. My father told me, you just finished your degree, we need to do something. This is not sustainable for the factory. So we decided to open a store in Madrid, in 2007, 2008. I did the design of the store, because I just finished my architecture degree. And from the very first day, we were selling. And one knew of Meermin by any means. Probably one customer went to Isetan once in their life, and remembered it.
Stitchdown: Did they know Yanko? Did you market that connection?
Pepe: No. Because we don’t want to take advantage of it. Why would we do that?
Stitchdown: It might help.
Pepe: Yeah, it might help. But why. My father never wanted to do that. Maybe it’s a boost for today, and what happens tomorrow. And I don’t want to have to explain to a customer, oh once it was Yanko, and now it’s Meermin—this is Meermin. Forget about Yanko. If you see the product itself, the factory, there’s nothing related to it, other than that my father was there. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we don’t want to take advantage of it.
Stitchdown: So that was 10, 11 years ago. And you opened the New York store in 2018. And everything else has been online? In 2007 you probably couldn’t even have a very good website.
Pepe: That’s the thing. We didn’t have it. But we started having emails from customers. Hey, I went to your store in Madrid, I want to buy a pair of shoes. And we start selling shoes, through the mail, without even having a website. Without even having pictures of the shoes. And we saw that people just kept coming. And it was strange. Because how did these people know about us? They know our lasts, they know what we do, because they’ve seen a picture on Facebook.
So we started working on our website, which wasn’t working. If you placed an order on our website, we didn’t even have the stock. Maybe we had it, maybe we didn’t. You placed an order, and when you had it ready, you got an email asking for payment. But probably that was three months later. And sometimes people were waiting for it! We were working like that for years. It wasn’t functional. But people kept coming. We knew people were hungry. By that time, websites were closer to what they are today. But not ours. It was completely outdated. It was so complicated to understand for the customer.
We started doing some trunk shows, we did our first trunk show in Stockholm, probably in 2012, 2013, something like that. It was a hotel that was completely outside the city center. People were coming by car to see the shoes. And there were a lot of people coming. So we thought hey, there’s something happening here. We started doing more trunk shows, Paris, London. We came to New York in 2014, and it was insane. We rented this space on the 4th floor, we didn’t even have a payment processing system. People were coming to try shoes on, and if they wanted to buy them, they were going down four floors to get cash, and they were coming up four floors to get the shoes. People were interested in the product, and that’s what kept us working.
Stitchdown: Who designs the shoes?
Pepe: My father, me, and my brother.
Stitchdown: Does the architecture background help at all with that?
Pepe: Yes. Not in terms of designing the shoes, the aesthetics. But for construction. Constructing something like that, how the parts all fit together, it really helps to understand things.
Stitchdown: Can you get specific with that? What’s an example?
Pepe: Take the shank. I came to realize that this is like a beam. It supports the structure of the shoe, from the heel to the middle of your foot. But that’s only because it has a heel. If it doesn’t have a heel, a shank is probably not needed.
Stitchdown: I think I know the answer, but why is that?
Pepe: If you don’t have a shank, when you put your weight in, the structure of the shoe is not kept. But that’s because of the heel. If you go to an extreme, to high-heeled women’s shoes, you’ll see these aggressive steel shanks, to keep all the weight on the very thin heels. The shank is like the spine of the shoe. Going back to your question, when you’re looking at how the Goodyear welting process can be improved to make it more simple for the factory, more efficient, my background really helps. You can do Goodyear welting many ways. The thickness of the welt, insoles, midsoles, different kind of heels—you can do a lot of things, even if you don’t see them.
Stitchdown: Is there a way that you would sum up Meermin’s aesthetic design philosophy?
Pepe: Something that’s smart. Something that’s classic but refined. Although when people talk about classic, if you grab a catalog from the 50s—those are not today’s shoes. Those were something bulky, very different patterns and design. So it’s something that’s refined, and actual. From today. We’re not trying to revive shoes from the 50s. We do shoes for the people of today who are working in an office from 9 to 5. There was a tassel loafer back then, but if you see the shapes, the proportions of the patterns, it’s completely different. It’s very subtle sometimes, but for us they make a difference.
Stitchdown: What do you feel the benefits of hand-welting are, that you use in your Linea Maestro shoes?
Pepe: First of all, it’s the materials that you have to use. Not what you want to use, it’s what you have to use. For example, the thickness of the insoles. Today, Goodyear welting can be done in 100 different ways. Most of the time, if you dissect a shoe, you’ll find that the insoles aren’t leather, they’re paperboard. Because insoles are expensive. But for hand-welting, you don’t just need leather insoles, you need very thick insoles. Otherwise you’ll break the insoles easily when you’re stitching through it.
For the heel counters, we’re making them out of leather, on top of the last. We’re not buying something that’s pre-made, or leatherboards. We’re using leather, we’re skiving it on the shape, and we’re taking every last shape on top of it, for every single shoe, for every size. Which is something that—you don’t need it, but it adds something. Which is comfort. They will adapt to your foot way better than anything else, and they will keep their shape.
When you go into the structure of the shoe, a hand-welted shoe is more flexible, because you don’t need the rib of the Goodyear welted shoe that’s glued to the insole. You stitch through the insole, you don’t need anything else attached. And then to fill the bottom, the cork we use, you need something that’s much thinner, because there’s no gap, there’s no rib. So there’s less material.
Stitchdown: So what purpose does the cork serve then?
Pepe: Well there’s a very little space to fill, but also it’s a very good material for the moisture that goes through the insole. It also adds some flexibility. Some bespoke makers fill this with leather, but they’re not that flexible. And then the outsoles we use for the Linea Maestro, the JR soles, they’re lighter and more flexible. So the shoes are more comfortable, and they should last the same as the other shoes. I won’t say they’ll last longer. Although I’ll say that a Goodyear welted shoe, 10 years later, the rib may fall apart, because it’s glued, and this is stitched.
Stitchdown: So a lot of your business, and I think a lot of the most interesting, most beautiful Meermin shoes, seem to be flowing through your made-to-order groups. How do you figure out what goes in there?
Pepe: We do a lot of samples during the year. New shapes, leathers we test all the time, soles, new patterns. And from all of that, we just do a selection. Sometimes it’s a bit off from the season, but we feel we still have to offer it. For example, we have some loafers that will be delivered sometime at the end of the summer. It’s not the best time, but we had the samples, and people were asking for them, so we just put them out. Most of the time we try to offer them seasonally, but it’s not the simplest thing to tell the customer in the middle of the summer, hey, start buying boots, because you’ll receive them in September when you need them.
But there are plenty of customers who just buy MTOs. They feel it’s more special, because it is. We may not offer them again. We have a lot of requests from people, hey, bring these back, make them in another color.
Stitchdown: So it’s not all driven by sales—customer feedback is part of it?
Pepe: Of course. We listen to everyone. We have groups at 25 pairs, and we have groups at 200 pairs. Shell cordovan, for example, we cannot offer it in stores or online in stock, not because we don’t want to, but we put it on the MTOs, and we don’t have enough to offer it in store. So we do it this way to be more efficient, and for people to buy just their size, instead of having stock lying around our warehouse that people are not buying. We know people are willing to buy the shoes, so just make whatever they want. So the groups are also a way to make things more efficient.
Stitchdown: Can people get something made to order that they come up with? Or it’s just through the groups?
Pepe: Not for now. We used to it years ago. I was doing it myself, and it wasn’t efficient, but the real problem is that it reached the point where we weren’t able to control it. We offered a program where you could customize almost anything. Which is good! But for a factory, it’s not good. When you go into that detail, it’s so simple to get it wrong. We realized that those orders were stopping the regular stuff in the factory. Our production was going down, and so we had to stop it. It was a good business, but it wasn’t efficient.
You can imagine a factory, making one pair at a time, a completely different pattern, and it’s not suiting the shape properly, but the customer wanted it. We were getting requests for very thin boots, in shell cordovan, military boot styles, with commando soles. How can you do it? There’s no way. When you widen the spectrum that much to the customer, they get overwhelmed, and they don’t know what they’re going to be getting. Because they haven’t seen it before.
So it’s something we’re interested in bringing back, but in another way.
Stitchdown: But you don’t know what it looks like yet?
Pepe: No. Something more simple, but still something that people can play with. But that’s a whole new project, to make it work for everyone, for everyone to be happy. It’s like the MTO groups. Something people don’t realize now is that we’re not charging anything else for the MTO groups. But then, we were charging 30% or 50% more. Now, we’re giving them the same price. Even the cordovan. There’s a very small amount of cordovan. We’re not raising the price. We just sell it faster. We’re not looking to profit in every single corner, because it we don’t have customers happy, we don’t have anything.
We were in department stores. But the problem is that you do what they want. If this year, they want red pointy shoes, you do red pointy shoes. But this is not Meermin. This is not representing what we do. So now we do whatever we want. And most importantly, we do what our customers want. That’s the main point for us. We can change whatever our customers want. We get tons of emails from people asking for different leathers, different styles, and you can see immediately what people are asking for. And you can offer it to your customers.
Stitchdown: How do you do your cordovan shoes so affordably?
Pepe: Same thing. And the leather is not cheap. But you need to remove the price from the mentality, to explain the product.
Stitchdown: You think you need to remove it the price? That seems like one of your biggest differentiators, to me.
Pepe: Explaining the product to the customer, and then explain this is what you’re getting for the price. Many people just see the price, for everything. But then you have people appreciating what’s in the product. And that’s a very different customer. But those are the people who move us forward. Those are the people who understand that these shoes are very well priced. We’re not just good for the price, but we push the people at tanneries to get the best stuff. There’s also stuff they make for us, because they don’t have it.
Stitchdown: How do you get a good relationship with a tannery? Volume? Paying them on time?
Pepe: At the end of the day, yes. But with D’Annonay and DuPuy, this is a relationship that we’ve had for years and years, and it’s a very good one.
Stitchdown: Is the majority of your leather from those two? Or I guess, that one?
Pepe: Yes, the calf. The grains. Some of the leather of the Linea Maestro.
Stitchdown: What about everything else?
Pepe: Suede is from Conceria Ambassador and also Conceria Sciarada, both of which are located near Santa Croce, in Italy. The full grain reverse calf suede that we use on our Linea Maestro suede and unlined shoes comes from Conceria Zonta, located in Bassano del Grappa in northern Italy, and the museum calf as well. Those are very expensive. And then we have suede, reverse calf, that’s from Du Puy. The cordovan is from Shinki, and we’re working with a new tannery in France that’s making us a soft leather that we’re going to be releasing soon. Which is insane.
Stitchdown: Tell me more about that?
Pepe: It’s called Barenia, from Haas Tanneries. It’s a double-tanned leather, the finish is quite similar to these we use from D’Annonay, and because the double tanning, it’s very shiny. And we’re working on testing with Horween for non-cordovan, other leathers, for boots, shoes, something more casual. Those will go with our new HOK last.
Stitchdown: So what else is next?
Pepe: We’re opening a store in Paris in the next couple months. We have a lot of customers in France. And just keep working. Because we need to catch up. We’re doing a lot of improvement in the factory now, systems-wise, in order to have the shoes ready on time. If you see the website, there’s a lot of stuff out of stock, which shouldn’t be out of stock. So a lot of organization on the production, and the store opening, which is going to be something big for us. And then, we’ll see.